Rhapsodies in Red, White and Blue (RSNO/Schuller 14 Aug 2010)

My first concert of this year’s Edinburgh Festival was at the Usher Hall, where the RSNO gave a program of American music under veteran American conductor Gunther Schuller. The first item was Aaron Copland’s wartime piece, Lincoln Portrait. I was not familiar with this work but it was characteristic Copland, with quiet, melancholy passages reminiscent of Appalachian Spring contrasted with louder brassy sections. The RSNO’s principals had plenty of chance to shine with brief solos, particularly clarinet (John Cushing), flute (Katherine Bryan) and trumpet (John Gracie). Clarke Peters performed the speaking rôle superbly. He remained seated throughout and his amplified voice filled the auditorium without overwhelming the orchestra. In pieces such as this it is often hard to achieve the right balance between speaker and orchestra, and combined credit must go to Copland, Schuller and Peters, as well as the in-house sound engineers for achieving this perfectly. Peters’ delivery was quiet and not overdramatised; as Copland said, ‘The words are sufficiently dramatic in themselves’, and Peters brought this out without drawing attention to himself. The second piece was George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which is very well known in its arrangement for symphony orchestra but was performed in its original jazz band version. The reduced, and slightly unusual, forces of the RSNO included saxophones (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone) and a banjo. Special mention must go to principal tuba John Whitener who took up the double bass as well, as would have been done in Paul Whiteman’s original band. Although only 28 musicians were in the orchestra, it was hard not to imagine a much larger force was on stage given the size of the sound that filled the hall. My one criticism would be that the banjo and bass were hard to hear above the rest of the orchestra and both would have benefited from being doubled. The real star of the show, however, was Steven Osborne, who proved that he is one of the growing number of classical pianists who are equally at home in the jazz idiom. Left-Hand leaps were performed crisply and with staggering virtuosity while melodic lines sung and danced beautifully. The performance was rapturously received by the audience and I wonder why this version is not performed more often, as it has a primal, edgy quality which is lacking in the ‘cleaned up’ symphonic version.

The second half could not have been a more different affair: Charles Ives’ Symphony Nº 4 is a vast sprawling canvas of eerily microtonal harmonies and complex rhythms. I had never heard the symphony before, but having stumbled across a copy of the score in a library a few years ago, I was aware of its terrifying complexity. In the second movement. Gunther Schuller was ably assisted in the conducting duties by the leader of the orchestra, William Chandler. Schuller was successful in bringing out the structure of the piece, from the gentle opening – featuring a somewhat reduced chamber version of the RSNO chorus – building up to the climactic second movement. His control wasn’t relaxed as the orchestra approached the calm conclusion of the piece, again with chorus. The large percussion section took centre stage at several points, notably the start of the finale, beginning with five of them alone beating out a rhythmical pattern which continued as the whole orchestra grew to a fearful climax reminiscent of the second movement, before suddenly coming to a halt, ushering in a quiet coda-like passage. The final note was a single pianissimo beat from a bass drum – probably the quietest thing I have heard in a concert hall, yet perfectly audible in the stunning acoustic. Although less than thirty minutes long the symphony has all the dram a, tension and depth of a Mahler or Bruckner symphony three times its length. Given its complexity of the piece and the size of the orchestra involved we do not hear it often, but it was refreshing to see the RSNO tackling it with verve and bringing off a performance that testifies to the strong state of classical music in Scotland.

Pinnock and Pires end SCO Season on a High

Last night the Scottish Chamber Orchestra performed their season finale to an almost full Usher Hall – only the Upper Circle had any significant empty seats. On paper this might have appeared to be a safe programme of Mendelssohn, Beethoven and Mozart but under the able baton of Trevor Pinnock the performance was anything but.

The first piece was Mendelssohn’s overture Die schöne Melusine which is a well known piece and regularly played by the orchestra. The piece began with wonderful rippling sounds from the woodwind, particularly from principal flute Alison Mitchell. This nicely combined with sumptuous playing from the strings who were on top form in the faster sections as well. Trevor Pinnock’s tempo was brisk but never rushed and capture the breadth of the piece perfectly.
This was followed by one of my favourite piano concertos of all time – Beethoven’s 4th – performed by the great Portuguese/Brazilian pianist Maria João Pires. Although she was perhaps a little too loud in the first movement given the size of the orchestra, she never drowned them out. The fast runs and trills were very clear and brilliant. In the second movement Trevor Pinnock took a very slow tempo – probably the slowest I’ve heard – but this was no bad thing as it gave the music space – particularly in the broad string writing. Unfortunately Pires was less than perfect in the finale as there were a few slips despite a not excessively fast tempo. Nevertheless, the piece played out to a gloriously upbeat tempo with the orchestra again on top form. For an encore, pianist and conductor joined each other at the keyboard for a wonderful duet – probably the only occasion I shall ever see the harpsichordist Pinnock at a 9 ft concert grand. The identity of the piece is unfortunately unknown to me (early Mozart or one of Beethoven’s WoO perhaps). [edit: it was (probably) the last movement from Mozart’s Sonata for four hands, KV123A.] This hilarious piece ran as a series of witty repartees between the pianists and had the Usher Hall audience laughing out loud.

The final piece of the night, and indeed the SCO 09/10 season, was Mozart’s Symphony Nº 39. this is not as well known as some of Mozart’s other late symphonies – indeed it was the first time I had heard it. It was a wonderful piece that was great fun to listen to. There was more superb woodwind playing, this time from clarinettists Max Martin and Tom Verity in the trio section of the third movement. The finale was played at a rip-roaring pace and gave the clarinets more chance to shine, echoing figures with the flute.

This was a glorious end to an excellent SCO season and I eagerly look forward to next season which begins as this one ended with Mozart – Don Giovanni under principal conductor Robin Ticciati.

Stirling University Choir concert

Last Saturday I was singing in Dunblane Cathedral with Stirling University Choir. Our conductor Alistair Warwick had chosen to put on a very different concert from our usual fare in the shape of a programme entitled ‘Folk Songs from the British Isles’. Unfortunately, this had not fallen together entirely to our satisfaction, due to a lack of rehearsal time and being unable to obtain music for some of the pieces Alistair wanted to do. However, if the programme left something to be desired, the concert on the night went very well indeed. The centrepiece of the programme was four Burns settings by Carolyn Sparey, including two world premières. ‘Willie Wastle dwalt on Tweed’ was a particular favourite of mine (although not to everyone’s taste) and also a challenging sing – probably the most difficult piece of the night with chromatic tenor runs and other unusual moments. Other good sings included ‘What shall we do with a drunken sailor’ and ‘While shepherds watched their flocks by night’ in a smashing arrangement by our accompanist Matthew Beetschen of its original tune Cranbrook (now better known as ‘On Ilkla Moor Baht ’at’)The songs we sang were:

trad. Drunken Sailor
trad. Paddy on the Railway
Matt McGinn Coorie Doon
Benjamin Milgrove Mt Ephraim (Come ye that love the Lord – Isaac Watts)
anon. Sumer is icumen in
trad. Migildi, Magildi
Carolyn Sparey O Wert Thou in the Cauld Blast (World première)
trad. arr. Dennis MacDonald Ye Banks and Braes
Carolyn Sparey Willie Wastle Dwalt on Tweed


Carolyn Sparey A Red, Red Rose (World première of choral version)
Karine Polwart Follow the Heron
Carolyn Sparey Craigieburn Wood
trad. The Spinner’s Wedding
Vin Garbutt The troubles of Erin
Elizabeth Ann Spencer Irish Blessing
Thomas Clark, arr. Matthew Beetschen Cranbrook (While shepherds watched their flocks)
trad. arr. Jayne Davies Beside the Sea
trad. arr. Dennis MacDonald Will ye no’ come back again

This programme was augmented by poem readings and solo items by Carolyn Sparey on viola and Matthew Beetschen on organ. There were plenty of opportunities for members of the choir to do solos, all of whom acquitted themselves wonderfully. This was a very fun concert to be a part of – and those members of the audience that I spoke to seemed to enjoy it. It was surprising, at least for me, how much fun could be got out of really simple items like ‘Drunken Sailor’ and the round ‘Sumer is icumen in’

We are now looking forward to our next concert on the 4th of December, when we will be performing Britten’s St Nicholas, Finzi’s In terra pax and Normand Lockwood’s Carol Fantasy

4 to 94

Last weekend the Scottish Chamber Orchestra gave two excellent concerts at the Queen’s Hall. On Thursday evening the full orchestra under John Storgårds was joined by the Chorus for a programme of Brahms and Schumann.

The first item on the programme was Brahms’ Serenade Nº 2, which I was really looking forward to hearing after the SCO’s outstanding rendition of the 1st Serenade under Thierry Fischer last month. The first thing one noticed as the orchestra assembled was the much smaller forces – just 21 players on stage, and no violins. Of these, the piccolist Yvonne Paterson remained silent until the final movement. I wasn’t necessarily convinced by the central Adagio non troppo which although wistful didn’t really seem to go anywhere, but the scherzo which preceded it was a much more confident affair. The Quasi menuetto fourth movement was funny to the point of being hilarious with its start stop rhythms and the orchestra played it with great dexterity and aplomb. The finale was another vigorous number with the piccolo finally getting its chance to shine – and under Yvonne Paterson’s nimble fingers shine it did. This was followed by more Brahms – this time late Brahms in the shape of his Vier ernste Gesänge or Four Serious Songs. The soloist for these was the German bass-baritone Stephan Loges, who was a new name to me although according to the programme an SCO regular. On the form of this performance I hope the relationship continues. He sang from memory with every nuance of the text under his control and Storgårds’ orchestra matched him perfectly. (Incidentally the much larger orchestra was not Brahms’ but Günter Raphael’s orchestration of Brahms’ piano original.) The dark mood of the first three songs was lifted in the final setting of the hymn to love from 1 Corinthians 13 and orchestra and soloist brought the piece to a radiant conclusion.

The final piece of the evening was Schumann’s virtually unknown Mass which was probably being heard for the first time by most of the performers, let alone the audience. On first hearing this is a very curious work, which although probably neglected unjustly, does not really deserve a place alongside the greats of the choral canon. Stephan Loges was joined by English singers Rachel Nicholls (soprano) and Benjamin Hulett (tenor). The work begins with a slow and somewhat unsteady Kyrie which is followed by a very upbeat Gloria with a catchy (and somewhat repetitive) tune. This was the chorus’ third performance under their new chorusmaster Greg Batsleer and they did not seem quite as assured as in the first two excellent performances. Some entries were a little uncertain, particularly in the Gloria. The highlight of the work was the OffertoriumTota pulchra est, which was beautifully sung by Rachel Nicholls acompanied by David Watkin on cello and Jan Waterfield on Organ. Unfortunately the excessive sentimentality of this piece does not fit very well with the rest of the Mass, probably one reason why it enjoys a small life as a solo item outside of it. On balance Schumann’s Mass is an incredibly fun piece and was ably performed by all concerned, although I am not convinced it would bear up to repeated listening.

On Sunday it was the last of the SCO’s chamber concerts for the season and the turn of six of the Orchestra’s string players to take to the Queen’s Hall stage to present a delightful programme of nineteenth and twentieth century music. They began with a brief quartettsatz by Wolf – his Italian Serenade. This charming and witty piece showed a lighter side to Wolf’s music than most listeners of his work might suspect and provided ample opportunity for the quartet of Ruth Crouch, Claire Sterling, Jane Atkins, and Su-a Lee to show of their skills.

Next they were joined by Simon Rawson and Donald Gillian for Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht – a much weightier piece. I have always preferred the original chamber version to the large orchestral version (although I would love to hear the full SCO strings perform the full version – It is a piece that would suit their strengths very well) This was a confident and assured performance, although the tempo was perhaps a little to fast to fully appreciate the breadth of the piece. In the all important second viola line, Simon Rawson was at times lacking a touch of assertiveness, particularly in the pizzicato moments, but all six players responded well to each other and produced a cohesive whole.

After the interval the six players returned for Brahms second String Sextet. This piece as Conrad Wilson’s notes reminded us provided a clear example of the ambiguity of Brahms, with the second movement’s ‘anti-scherzo’ a perfect complement to Thursday night’s almost-minuet. The finale brought us back to the same light-hearted nature which had begun the afternoon and was brought off with tremendous skill and enthusiasm by the players,

SCO/Elts play Ligeti, Tüür and Sibelius

Saturday night saw the Scottish Chamber Orchestra play what looked on paper to be an interesting programme of twentieth and twenty-first century music under the baton (or rather hands) of their Estonian principal guest conductor Olari Elts. The audience in the Queen’s Hall was somewhat disappointing although quite good for an Edinburgh performance of new music (how I wish I could never say that!).

The first piece on the programme was György Ligeti’s Concerto Românesc. I don’t know much Ligeti but what I know I tend to like; and this proved to be one of his best I’ve heard so far. It was an absolutely stonking piece played with the incredible dexterity one expects from the SCO. Particular mention must go to guest leader Alexander Janiczek for his outstanding solos particularly in the fourth movement. The third, offstage, horn in the third movement was especially effective in the Queen’s Hall acoustic. Exciting as this was, ten minutes of great music does not a great programme make. The rest of the evening produced fine fare but not at such a high standard. The main draw, at least for myself, was the world première of the eighth Symphony by Elts’ compatriot Erkki-Sven Tüür (technically the second performance as the true première had been the night before in Glasgow). This was a very finely wrought piece – some might say overwrought – and would probably have been impenetrable if not for Tüür’s extremely informative pre concert discussion of the principle features of the piece. As it was the talk (accompanied by some rather doubtful, but incredibly useful, midi synthesised samples of key moments) made it at lot easier to know what to listen out for. The symphony was an interesting work and if I am not particularly inclined to revisit it in future, I shall certainly look out for more of Tüür’s work as he seems to be a talented composer (at least with seven previous symphonies plus a good deal of other material there should be plenty to chose from, although given that I have not heard his name before I have no idea how much has been recorded)

The second half of the concert was taken up with Sibelius’s third symphony – a fine work, and doubtless the only familiar item on the programme for much of the audience. The performance was not the finest I have heard, and this was obvious despite the fact that I have never heard it live before. Particularly in the first movement the sound was muddy at times, with Elts failing do bring out individual instrumental lines. Nonetheless the second and third movements improved, and there was obviously a great relationship between orchestra and conductor and the applause at the end showed the performance was well received. It seemed to be a case of the whole being greater than its parts as despite the failings the general impression was one of an excellent performance.

From this concert it is obvious where Elts’ strengths lie. His handling of the Ligeti and the Tüür was exemplary, as would be expected giving his background in contemporary music. His Sibelius was much less assured and he could do with taking a leaf out of the many excellent interpreters the piece has recieved over the years (not all of them Scandinavian – Mark Elder’s excellent live recording with the Hallé a few years back being a case in point).